St Augustine's Tower
- Original design
- Unknown, 1275
The 2018 programme is now past. We will be launching the 2019 programme mid-August.
Welcome to St Augustine’s Tower, Hackney’s oldest building listed Grade l. The first known church on this site was constructed in late 13C but the Tower was substantially reconstructed c1520 by Christopher Urswick, a courtier of Henry VII. The upper parts of the Tower, built to a very high quality from Kentish Ragstone date from Urswick’s reconstruction. The lower parts are clearly older and note on the right hand side (looking towards the Tower) the remnant of an arch separating the nave from the south aisle of the old church.
Looking out from the tower cornerstones showing the extent of the old church can be seen to the left. The old church (apart from the Tower) was demolished in 1798 after the new church of St John at Hackney was completed. The monuments were moved to the new church (currently closed for restoration). A new church was required because the population of Hackney grew rapidly in the 18C. It was built to a budget of £10,000, insufficient to provide a bell tower. A bell tower was built in 1814 but due to concerns about its robustness, the bells were only moved from St Augustine’s Tower after the new tower was underpinned in 1854. By this time, Victorian enthusiasm for all things medieval and Gothic meant that sentiment favoured retention of the old Tower. A single bell, dated 1857 was commissioned from Warner’s foundry of Cheapside to ring the hours counted by the 16C turret clock.
The tower remained in the ownership of the parish until 1929, although it was used at times as a toolshed and as a mortuary. It was then purchased by Hackney Council and has been cared for since 1990 by Hackney Historic Buildings Trust which restored the building in 2005-6 with support from the Heritage Lottery Fund.
The Tower stands in the churchyard which formed the historic heart of Hackney above the Hackney Brook which flowed by the present railway bridge and through what is now Tesco’s car park until culverted in 19C. The churchyard was “parkified” in the 1890s with the tombstones mostly relocated to the edge of the gardens. There is a fine tomb chest in the Tower containing the bodies of Capt Robert Deane (d1699) and his children and a momento mori on the outside to the left (looking towards the Tower) of the door. The Tower formerly opened on to the south aisle of the church and the entrance seems to have been stopped up with various architecturally salvaged materials when the old church was demolished.
There are three upper floors. The first is the former bell ringing room with surviving carillon steps. It is currently used for schools and events and contains an exhibition on the history of Hackney. In the second floor is the turret clock thought to date from the 1570s. The clock originally only contained a striking train to ring the hours but a “going” train to show the time including the clock faces was added in 18C. Most of the mechanism is original. The clock was wound by hand to 2006 but electric winding was then introduced because of expert horological advice that this would reduce strain on the clock mechanism.
The next floor contains the bell and caution should be exercised not to stand close to it when the hour is about to strike!
The view from the roof ranges from Central London to Highgate and Alexandra Palace to the north west with Epping Forest to the north east. The view also gives a perspective on the wide range of social housing built in Hackney from the 1930s to the present.